Spirited Away (Mania.com)

By:Jon Turner
Review Date: Friday, May 02, 2003
Release Date: Tuesday, April 15, 2003



The Review!
Rating:
Video Quality: ****1/2 out of *****
Audio Qualty: ***** out of *****
Japanese Language Track: ***** out of *****
English Language Track: ***** out of *****
French Language Track: N/A
Packaging: ****1/2 out of *****
Menus: **** out of *****
Extras: ***** out of *****
Content: ***** out of *****

Overall Rating: ****1/2 out of *****

Review:
Hayao Miyazaki's films are well known in Japan, but America has had
little exposure to its films. PRINCESS MONONOKE received an excellent DVD
release from Miramax three years ago, and just last year Fox Video released a
barebones version of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, but other than these two films (as
well as THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO), the catalog of Miyazaki's films on DVD has
been rather skimpy. All of that is about to change, however, for Disney is
(finally!) bringing Miyazaki's titles to the U.S. on DVD -- especially now
that they have just been issued in Japan. And what better choices to start
out with rather than three of his most popular (and most requested) films
SPIRITED AWAY, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and CASTLE IN THE SKY? This review
focuses on one of these three titles  SPIRITED AWAY, currently the highest
grossing movie in Japan, surpassing that of Miyazaki's own PRINCESS MONONOKE
and TITANIC. It has earned raves all around the world since then; the film
earned many prestigious awards, including the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin
Film Festival--as well as Miyazaki's very first Academy Award for Best
Animated Feature Film of 2002. And no wonder. The movie, like Miyazaki's
other achievements, is yet another classic in the Miyazaki canon. And the
DVD treatment Disney gave this film truly does show that the Mouse House
respects the Master Animator of Japan.

VIDEO QUALITY: ****1/2 out of *****
Given that I was so impressed with Disney's transfer of PRINCESS
MONONOKE, I expected nothing less than similar excellence for the rest of his
films. These expectations are nearly completely fulfilled. The backdrops,
characters and scenery all stand out in full gorgeous splendor. There was a
strong issue about red tint on the Japanese DVD release, but thankfully I am
pleased to assure you that this problem is not at all apparent on the US
version. The transfer only gets half a star off due to some occasional
bleeding, but this feels like shameless nitpicking, especially when the video
quality is so beautiful. In addition, on the Japanese language track, the
credits and titles are identical to those on the original un-dubbed print ala
PRINCESS MONONOKE.

AUDIO QUALITY: ****1/2 out of *****
The audio department includes both the English and Japanese soundtracks
in Dolby 5.1 Sound, plus a 2.0 French language track. I've only spot checked
the Japanese track and heard the English, but I'm still happy to say that
these audio tracks score. The music comes across magnificently in the
speakers and the dialogue and sound effects are wonderfully mixed. Simply
superb quality.

JAPANESE LANGUAGE TRACK: ***** out of *****
I only spot checked the Japanese language track, but it sounded solid
from what I could hear. Plus, given that it's a recent film, it shouldn't
come across as surprising that a 5.1 Dolby Surround track would be recorded
for the DVD. There are, of course, fans who shouted for a DTS or a 6.1 mix
(similar to the Japanese release), but fans still should be pleased that
Disney included this track on all its Miyazaki DVDs.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRACK: ***** out of *****
It's a miracle this movie ever made it to the United States... and got
dubbed, too. Disney didn't want to buy the U.S. rights for theatrical
distribution or DVD release, but thankfully they reconsidered. And it's all
thanks to John Lasseter, a longtime fan of Miyazaki (and director of many
PIXAR productions, most notably TOY STORY, A BUG'S LIFE, and MONSTERS INC.).
Not only did he help support the film's release, he also worked on the
English dub together with Kirk Wise, co-director for Disney's BEAUTY AND THE
BEAST. And the dubbing is phenomenal, ranking up there with Disney's
previous dubs for Miyazaki's films. Daveigh Chase, who played Lilo in
Disney's recent hit LILO AND STITCH, is wonderful as Chihiro; she SOUNDS like
a scared, sweet, and brave little girl. I've always had fondness for Jason
Marsden's voice work as Max in A GOOFY MOVIE, but I think his performance as
Haku is his best voice role ever. Similarly excellent performances can be
heard from Susan Egan (Lin), David Ogden Stiers (Kamaji), and John
Ratzenberger (Assistant Manager). However, I think Suzanne Pleshette is the
highlight of the show; she plays Yubaba's greedy, loud-mouthed nature,
pampering maternal side to her baby, and her twin sister, Zeniba (who, by the
way, is the opposite of Yubaba -- she is IDEALLY Granny!) to perfection. I
could not have imagined a better English dub even after spot checking the
original Japanese language, but Lasseter, Wise, and his team deserve special
credit for their work on this film.

FRENCH LANGUAGE TRACK: N/A
I didn't listen to the French language track yet, so I cannot make any
comments on it.

PACKAGING: ****1/2 out of *****
Of the three Miyazaki DVDs Disney has released, SPIRITED AWAY features
the best packaging. Not only are there mention of Miyazaki's name and Studio
Ghibli galore, there is a charming pamphlet that features written words from
Miyazaki himself about the film! (This is truly a wonderful bonus.) Oh, and
I just LOVE the background images they chose for the packagingit recaptures
the surreal, almost nightmarish atmosphere of the film to perfection. Maybe
not as in-depth as I would have liked, but still first-class all around.

MENUS: **** out of *****
For better or worse, the menus share the same ups and downs with each of
the two Miyazaki releases. The full-motion menus are absolutely gorgeous,
but the transition shot involving Chihiro and a dragon crashing through an
air vent gets old and redundant fast. In addition, you have to do some
serious configuring with the controls to get it to play the Japanese titles
and literal subtitles, but fortunately, you can change the subtitles (and the
audio) on the fly. It seems as though future Disney/Ghibli US releases will
contain from these similar characteristics, given that Disney has a notorious
reputation for producing DVD menus this way.

EXTRAS: ***** out of *****
This was the weakest section of the PRINCESS MONONOKE DVD, but here it is
exactly the opposite. SPIRITED AWAY really got a lot of attention ever since
it won the well-deserved Oscar, so it shouldn't be surprising that it has a
lot of extras. The first one is a little less than promising it's a 1:11
minute intro with John Lasseter, who actually looks a little depressed
(although the shots with him and Miyazaki are a delight) and basically talks
about his thoughts of the film. His intros on the other DVDs are much better
(and shorter, too).

Thankfully, the other extras are all five-star material. There's the
fifteen minute "The Art Of SPIRITED AWAY" with excellent hosting from Jason
Marsden and wonderful interview clips from the dubbing staff, (and yes,
Miyazaki himself), as they talk about the making of the film and its release
to the United States.

Moving onto the second disc, there is the "Behind the Microphone"
featurette which focuses on the dubbing of SPIRITED AWAY, and, yes, there are
interviews with the cast members, including Suzanne Pleshette and Jason
Marsden. My only complaint? It's too short! Five minutes just isn't enough!

There is also a storyboard comparison sequence, which basically involves
the opening of the film. Here, in this sequence you can use the alternate
angle button to switch back and forth between the hand drawn storyboards and
the finished film. Film buffs will note how slightly similar the storyboards
are to the finished film.

And, of course there are the Japanese theatrical trailers, and, my, what
a whole bunch of them there are! This entire sequence runs for nearly half
an hour! That's quite a long time, but Miyazaki fans should be in Heaven.

But the last, and possibly best extra of all, is the forty-minute Nippon
TV Special. Here we actually get to go BEHIND the scenes of SPIRITED AWAY,
and see Miyazaki and his colleagues at work. There is so much to see in this
featurette the early drawings, story meetings, animation sessions, sound
recordings... and so much more. And it's all soft subtitled, too.

All in all, a true treat for Miyazaki fans.

CONTENT: ***** out of *****
Where to start in a review of SPIRITED AWAY? Probably the best way is to
state that this movie, like Miyazaki's films, is a magical tapestry of sights
and sounds filled with exotic creatures, mythical settings, and, for its
heroine, a little girl named Chihiro who is cute and sweet and thankfully not
a selfish brat or bad-tempered hysterical bitch (unlike some of the other
Anime I was watching around this time period).

She starts off as initially sulky, but mainly because of a situation we
can all relate to: she is moving with her parents to a new home, and thinks
that her new life is "gonna stink". She becomes understandably panicked and
suspicious when her parents decide to cross through a forbidden tunnel to a
restaurant-filled village where they gobble up food that is sacred and
cursed. Yes, CURSED -- as a result of eating these forbidden riches, her
parents are transformed into pigs!

To free her mother and father, Chihiro must find work at the town's
central bathhouse (populated with all sorts of bizarre and unconventional
spirits). The bathhouse's contemptuous owner, a greedy sorceress named
Yubaba (who has, MY GOODNESS, THE HUGEST BABY I HAVE *EVER* SEEN!),
grudgingly agrees, and in doing so renames her Sen. Although our ten-year
old heroine is at first frowned upon by many of the bath house workers,
Chihiro finds true friends in Kamaji, the six-legged(!) boiler man, Lin, the
gruff but loyal bath house woman, and of course, Haku, a mysterious
pale-faced boy whom Chihiro seems to have a deep connection with....

To reveal anything more about this masterpiece would be a crime, but I
will emphasize that the artistry is jampacked with weirdness, imagination,
and creativity, from the bathhouse's exotic-looking guests to a mysterious
shadowy specter called No Face, who voices anyone he swallows -- and responds
to how he is treated. There are more fabulous creatures to rave about --
those little Soot Balls who help Kamaji in the boiler room (taken from MY
NEIGHBOR TOTORO) are SO cool!

One of the show's biggest highlights is when Chihiro's first bath guest,
a sludge-covered mass known as a Stink Spirit, shows up for his bath. When
he dives into the tub, the clean herbal soak turns into brown muck and the
Spirit himself is still every bit as sludgy as he was from the get-go. We
soon discover that this is because of a thorn stuck in his side, which turns
out to be (guess what?!) a BICYCLE, and all kinds of junk. This is followed
by the bath house becoming clean and littered with gold nuggets and the Stink
Spirit revealing its true identity, a majestic, dragon-like River Spirit with
the face of an old man. Probably the message here is the dangers of
pollution, and this River Spirit certainly is a strong example of one of the
world's all-too common problems today.

At the film's final stage of journey, there is a comic duo of a cute
little mouse (formerly Yubaba's baby) and a crow fly (mosquito?) with what
sounds like a very nostalgic buzzing sound from the cartoons of the 40s. The
audience in the theater I was in chuckled a lot at this duo, and one cannot
help but do the same.

The sceneries also deserve special recognition; every location in the
film, from the bathhouse's atrium to a breathtaking train ride across a
glossy seabed (my personal favorite sequence in the movie) is painted with
love and care... so stunning that one feels tempted to grab it like candy.
Joe Hisaishi's music score, although not as memorable as some of his earlier
works for Miyazaki, is a fabulous accompaniment for the picture; some of the
tunes work better for the scenes than as a listening experience. The
characters, as always, are believable, full-fledged, and multi-faceted --
there are no cardboard cut characters or caricatures present.

SPIRITED AWAY enjoyed a modestly successful limited theatrical release in
the US, grossing an estimated $9 million in first 150 but later about 800
theaters, yet there are many who feel like it should have done better. I do
agree that it COULD have been marketed better, however, considering the
circumstances Disney was facing at the time (running low on money, the
huge-risk of failure, etc.), I do not have much of a grudge. The film also
earned a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Animated Film of 2002 -- an
amazing first for an Anime. I cannot be any happier for Miyazaki and his
colleagues at Studio Ghibli; hopefully this success will help his works to
get the recognition they deserve. Thank you, Disney, for making it all
possible!

Probably the only other amazing feature about the film is how many
discussions can be held about it even after the credits roll. I've seen so
many people on the internet with varying interpretations about this movie...
and none of them are really confirmed in the story, either. Rarely do we get
a gorgeous movie which allows people to deliver their own opinions upon it,
and this probably is what makes SPIRITED AWAY such a remarkable achievement.
Even though there are some naysayers, I strongly suggest you give this film a
try; there is much to marvel and enjoy in any Miyazaki masterpiece, and this
film delivers all the goods... and then some.

OVERALL RATING: ****1/2 out of *****
Ah, what can I say? You owe it to yourself to see SPIRITED AWAY -- it
is truly a masterpiece. The DVD is phenomenal. Get it. Immediately.

Review Equipment:
TEAC AG-V8520 Audio/Video Surround Receiver, Samsung TV, Phillips DVD711
Player, and Acoustic Speakers

-Jon T.




Review Equipment
TEAC AG-V8520 Audio/Video Surround Receiver, Samsung TV, Phillips DVD711 Player, and Acoustic Speakers



Mania Grade: NA
Audio Rating: N/A
Video Rating: N/A
Packaging Rating: N/A
Menus Rating: N/A
Extras Rating: N/A
Age Rating: 12 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
MSRP: 29.99
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 2.0:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Spirited Away